I follow a writer named Roxane Gay on Twitter (she has just published a book called Bad Feminist, which is on my “Definitely Get This One” list). Yesterday she tweeted a link to a book review in the Economist magazine with the comment “I wasn’t aware there were any black people who were not victimized during the slavery era.”
I was curious. I have a subscription to the Economist; it’s usually intelligent and well written, though definitely economically conservative.
I use the word “usually” advisedly.
The review was of of a book called The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism, by Edward Baptist. According to the review, a premise of the book is that increases in cotton productivity over 60 years were driven “by pickers being driven to work ever harder by a system of ‘calibrated pain’.”
The gist of the review: this opinion is based on the accounts of only a few slaves, and “an historian cannot know whether these few spokesmen adequately speak for all.” Because the prices of slaves had risen, it is quite likely that slave owners had a vested interest in keeping them fitter and stronger. Therefore, “Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains. This is not history; it is advocacy.”
What were they thinking?
The online reaction to this odious piece was, predictably, rage, and some disapproving editorial content as the media picked up on it. The Economist does not publish writer bylines, for which the writer of this review must now be very grateful. As the Washington Post commented, “Whoever penned this black-and-white passage will indeed escape public shaming, though his or her colleagues surely know who typed in those words. They have the special burden of knowing who tarnished the entire Economist brand.”
Today the Economist apologized for publishing the review and specifically for the “Mr Baptist has not written an objective history of slavery. Almost all the blacks in his book are victims, almost all the whites villains” statement (though not for the following sentence about advocacy). The review has been withdrawn (though there’s still a link for those who want to read it, a rather half-hearted kind of withdrawal).
By the comments, it looks like people aren’t buying the apology. I’m not surprised; this presumably got by an editor, which suggests incompetence at the very least.
Oh, and the review prompted a sarcastic Twitter hashtag discussing these kinds of unbalanced content problems in books: see #EconomistBookReviews. My favourite tweet so far: “Jonathan Swift accurately described solutions to persistent Irish problems, but sadly does not provide recipes.”